The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

The Influence of first teachers

My first teacher was my father.

My first teacher was my father.

If we’re lucky, we see it happen: a student in a high school or college English, Literature, Journalism or Creative Writing class suddenly steps out of nowhere and begins to love the course.

At the elementary and middle school level, that student is often a person who comes from a family where reading isn’t encouraged, yet somehow the teacher says the right thing at the right time, and a life-long reader is born. In high school and college, life-long writers are often born the same way. It’s almost an example of the philosophical statement, “when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.”

When it came to writing, I had a natural affinity for it because our family loved books, my mother was a former high school publications adviser, and my father was a writer and a college journalism professor. Books and writing were as much a part of our family as tools and cars were a part of other families.

What we learn from our first teachers often remains as a strong influence whether we write fiction, work in corporate communications or training departments, or write magazine articles or news stories. In my case, what I learned naturally was both a blessing and a curse:

My use of spoken and written English was always higher than average in my elementary and middle school courses. Since it was, my brain couldn’t wrap itself around (what I saw then) as the artifice of naming parts of speech, verb tenses, etc. None of that made sense to me. Consequently, I was a poor student in English class on anything having to do with the formalities of structure. This made it impossible for me to learn a foreign language because foreign grammar made no sense to me because I couldn’t link it to English grammar.

The blessing has been stronger. In addition to his teaching, my father wrote many books and a thousand book reviews and articles. In every case, he made his points from facts or from opinions substantiated by facts. His focus on accuracy has stayed with me. So has his persistence.

High School – Leon High, Tallahassee, Florida

My most influential teacher in high school, who deserves a lot of credit for putting up with my intuitive approach to writing, was Ruth B. Skretting. She was also my German teacher and understood why I couldn’t learn it. Even though I always fought with the formalities of English grammar (knowing what they were called, not how to use them), I came away from Mrs. Skretting’s classes much stronger than I was when I arrived. While I couldn’t tell her what verb tenses I was using, she made sure I used them correctly in my written assignments.

College. Florida State University

Shaara

Shaara

I lucked out in college. My creative writing instructor was the widely known, Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Shaara. (His novel “The Killer Angels” was made into the movie “Gettysburg.”) From him, I learned how to put myself in the story and allow it to grow as it wanted to grow. Many teachers taught us to write from outside the story as though we were conducting biological experiments with cultures in petri dishes. No doubt, that works for a lot of people.

When you step into the story, not so much as a character, but as an observer who is standing there watching people take actions, listening to them talk, and seeing the scenes and events they’re seeing, you come to the story in quite a different way. I write the way I write because I was in his class, a class that met in the living room of his house rather than a formal classroom.

When writers look back, they often find that some of their greatest strengths come from the influences of their first teachers. Or, when they’re feeling depressed or blocked, they often discover it’s because they’ve temporarily forgotten those first lessons.

Food for thought on Father’s Day as I remember my own father’s influence.

–Malcolm

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3 thoughts on “The Influence of first teachers

  1. Pingback: A Writer’s First Duty: Surving the Failures of Education | The Sun Singer's Travels

  2. Malcolm, it is heartening to hear about your experiences! I too had an early teacher in middle school who inspired me through tough experiences in high school and college when I would get an A for content, an F for spelling, and an average C for the written-in-class theme! My middle school’s teacher’s confidence in my writing was like a seed that sprouted when the soil was right.

    • Many of us were, in a sense, “rescued” by teachers who were generally great or who saw promise in us that other teachers were unaware of. (My spelling also wasn’t all that good.) As it turns out, your middle school teacher must have been psychic!

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